Behind bars: PhD researcher examining effects of prison life post-incarceration

Feb 29th, 2016

By Jeff Green

PhD researcher Hayley Crichton is examining effects of prison life post-incarceration.
Behind bars: PhD researcher examining effects of prison life post-incarceration

Gritty dramas such as Oz, the envelope-pushing dramedy Orange is the New Black and the binge-worthy documentaryMaking a Murderer offer glimpses into prison life.

What they don’t do is accurately portray the true realities—and effects—of life behind bars, says PhD researcher Hayley Crichton.

She’s hoping her doctoral work sheds new important light on incarceration, particularly on those experiencing solitary confinement, a form of imprisonment that’s restrictive both physically and psychologically.

“The first stage of my research focuses on how prisoners experience incarceration differently than those in the general population while in prison,” explained Ms. Crichton, who grew up in Toronto, Ont., where she completed her undergraduate at York University before moving to Newfoundland and Labrador to complete a master’s degree in sociology at Memorial. She recently received an $80,000 doctoral scholarship from theSocial Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for her research.

She wants to better understand the effects of voluntary and involuntary solitary confinement on societal integration post-incarceration.

“Do these prisoners experience increased strain and concern or do they feel they lose social skills due to lack of communication with others on a consistent basis?” Ms. Crichton questioned during a recent interview.

“While the answer to these questions seems to be common sense—of course it has negative effects—it remains important to remember that prisoners are already an ‘othered’ population,” she added. “Assuming we know more about their experiences further removes the importance of their own voice. My research explicitly asks for their voice, their understandings and their experiences.”

Post-release effects
The second phase of Ms. Crichton’s PhD research focuses on the effects of incarceration on prisoners in solitary confinement post-release. More specifically, she wants to know if these people find societal re-integration more difficult than those who were not in solitary confinement while in prison.

She says there can often be big differences and struggles for prisoners once they’re free from jail.

”Specifically, I want to understand if the social skills required for attaining lawful employment, maintaining and developing positive relationships or avoiding recidivism is affected by periods spent in isolation at a notable rate,” said Ms. Crichton, who is completing her research under the supervision of Dr. Rose Ricciardelli, assistant professor, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts.

Important research
Although her research is in the early stages, Ms. Crichton expects her work to take her from this province to Ontario. She says current Canadian research on her topic is critically needed.

“Understanding the history of solitary confinement is important in order to navigate where we are in Canada today,” she pointed out. “After all, solitary didn’t just come out of nowhere recently and yet we are now seeing a wave of public concern for its usage. Indeed, this is not the first time in which the usage of solitary confinement has been questioned resulting in the practice falling into disfavour.”

Ms. Crichton credits Memorial’s sociology department—and in particular Dr. Ricciardelli—for helping foster her interest in her topic. She says she was attracted to stay at Memorial to complete her PhD because of the support she’s received from the Faculty of Arts and opportunities available to graduate studies.

She’s currently teaching Introduction to Canadian Corrections, an online course offered through the Police Studies Program in the Faculty of Arts. Ms. Crichton says she’s fortunate to gain the teaching experience.

“It has reintroduced me to texts that I have not read since my own undergraduate degree. It is always positive to go back to the basics for a refresher,” she said with a smile. “Second is the opportunity to disseminate information to students outside of my program.

“Being allowed to teach is another reason why I stayed at Memorial,” she added. “This opportunity does not present itself often.”